Special education in Washington is a mess. For families, it can be adversarial and emotionally draining. For students, it can be isolating, even traumatizing. We need to create equal opportunities to learn.
For those in the field, that can be hard to hear, and certainly we have some phenomenal staff members working with children with disabilities. Still, conflicts with special education are the most common calls to the state’s Office of the Education Ombuds, by far. And many problems with discipline and bullying loop back to it.
Parents struggle with delays or denial of interventions and accommodations. Children struggle with segregation and a sense of failure that erode their emotional health.
All this was captured in a recent report to the Legislature calling for a commission to usher in change. But what got lost in translation was the proposed solution.
The hundreds who contributed to the report didn’t call for overhauling special education. They asked us to rethink our approach to education — the way we teach, support students and prepare educators, and our methods, materials and assessments.
How people learn varies. What they’re going through physically, socially and emotionally; what their cultural norms are; even how their brains are wired — all of this plays a part. Only when diversity is accommodated — expected and embraced — is education made accessible.
This approach is called universal design learning, and it asks educators to rethink the what, how and why of learning to give all students equal opportunity.
- What: Provide various ways to acquire, process and integrate information. For instance, use vision, hearing and touch to teach about a forest ecosystem.
- How: Allow multiple ways to navigate and demonstrate learning. Let a student create a game instead of write an essay.
- Why: Engage learners in a variety of ways to tap their interests, challenge them appropriately and motivate them. This involves classroom strategies like group projects as well as internal strategies: Does the student need help regulating emotions? What about goal setting?
In our schools today, a student with dyslexia might be told he or she has to fail for two years before he or she can get help. There’s no legal basis for it, it’s demoralizing and it sets kids back across subjects. Families have to fight, or opt out. A universal design approach sidesteps this. It assumes children need options and makes those options the norm.
Because it makes learning more accessible, it reduces the need to pull students out for separate instruction. When intervention is necessary, it’s given in a system of tiered supports — not rationed.
And the radical part? This system challenges a pervasive attitude that absent our ability to “fix” certain students, we can’t expect much from them. Because here’s what happens all too often with special education: When we don’t expect much, we don’t offer much.
Too many children are put in classes that are not only physically separate, there’s no alignment with what their peers are learning next door. These children are not given the opportunity to master what they need to know for life after high school — an opportunity that forms the basis of our state’s program of basic education.
The outcomes of this dual system are alarming. Too many of our youths with special needs are unemployed after high school. They’re not enrolled in higher education. They’re not in training programs. They’re shut out and struggling.
More than 200 statewide individuals contributed to the report on a special education task force. They included advocates, families and representatives from more than 100 organizations that work in education or with the disabled.
What they said, in essence, is we are hurting kids.
We have options, and they start with embracing diversity in learning.
Ramona Hattendorf is vice president of Community & Parents for Public Schools of Seattle and serves on the advisory board of the Washington State Family and Community Engagement Trust.